Accounting students investigate IRS careers

NIU accountancy major Jonathan Strevell (right) "arrests" graduate student Gregory Broughton as part of a role-playing project conducted in the NIU College of Business by the Criminal Investigations arm of the IRS.
NIU accountancy major Jonathan Strevell (right) "arrests" graduate student Gregory Broughton as part of a role-playing project conducted in the NIU College of Business by the Criminal Investigations arm of the IRS.

Few students studying in Northern Illinois University’s nationally acclaimed Department of Accountancy ever considered that their jobs might include arresting drug dealers, conducting undercover interviews with bookies or raiding crooked tax preparers.

However, they learned that those things are all in a day’s work for accountants who work as criminal investigators for the Internal Revenue Service.

Fifteen IRS special agents gave students a taste of that life Friday, April 8, when the Adrian Project returned to the NIU College of Business for the second consecutive year.

As the investigative arm of the IRS, special agents are frequently pulled into cases by other law enforcement agencies to sift through financial records to help bring down criminals. It is a little-known about aspect of the agency’s duties.

“We used to go out recruiting agents at college job fairs, but the pamphlets we handed out didn’t really capture what we do,” says Walter Pauli, a supervisory special agent who co-created the program about a decade ago.

To correct that, he and his partner devised a day-long role playing exercise that gives students the opportunity to conduct mock drug raids, participate in undercover interviews, dig through trash for incriminating documents and to see that the accounting skills they learn in the classroom can be used to fight crime. The IRS uses the program as a recruiting tool at about a half dozen universities each year.

“It’s an opportunity for us to show students what we do, things we are usually very secretive about,” says Supervisory Special Agent Walter Olgy. “We want them to see that just because you have an accounting degree doesn’t mean you have to sit behind a calculator and a computer all day.”

The 40-plus students participating in the NIU event all were enrolled in (or had completed) a course on forensic accounting — a specialty area that focuses on using accounting techniques to solve crimes or support litigation. Students choosing that career path might end up working not just for the IRS or FBI, but law firms that need to confirm the validity of asset claims in divorces and other matters.

“Most students think that being an accountant means being a bean counter, but forensic accounting can be sexy and exciting,” says professor Chih-Chen Lee, who teaches the subject to about 100 students a year at NIU.

Judging by the enthusiastic participation of students throughout the day, that message got through loud and clear.

The hallways of the college’s home, Barsema Hall, were filled with groups of students wearing bulletproof vests and carrying two-way radios and red, rubber replicas of sidearms as they conducted surveillance, and there was no missing when “arrests” were made with students barking at various role players to get their hands in the air.

The simulated shooting range – essentially a life-size, interactive  video game – was also a hit.

Of course, students also got a taste of the more technical aspects of the job, too, as they pored over financial documents looking for irregularities – usually with success.

“My students were great, they found what they were supposed to fine,” says Special Agent Martha Grijalva, who earned her undergraduate accounting degree from NIU in 2002 (and a master’s degree in 2004) before joining the IRS in 2005.

That came as no surprise to Olguy, who said the IRS carefully selects schools for the Adrian Project with an eye toward attracting quality candidates.

“NIU Accountancy graduates are well respected,” he says, “not just throughout the Midwest, but across the nation.”

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